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Illinois is in good hands with Josh Whitman

Whitman has taken meaningful steps to protect the well-being and safety of Illini athletes.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Illinois Michael Allio-USA TODAY Sports

The almost daily deluge of awful news coming out of Evanston over the past few weeks has been a lot to take in. Sure, it’s extra embarrassing for Northwestern fans and alumni, but the news has cast all of college athletics in a negative light, too. The hazing and mistreatment allegations have people all over the country wondering: Is this happening at my school too?

Even without seeing the unpublished report that led to Pat Fitzgerald’s original two-week suspension — or hearing a single press conference from anyone in NU leadership — the publicly available information paints a pretty damning picture of what may have transpired in Evanston. For years, players hazed newcomers, coaches turned a blind eye, and when the abuse couldn’t be hidden any longer, the administration tried in vain to cover the entire situation up. Poor decisions over many years at all levels of the Northwestern program (players, coaches, and administration) have led to the debacle that we’re watching unfold today.

It wasn’t all that long ago that Illinois had to deal with its own “not ideal” situation, but rather than putting a band-aid on the problems that the Illini program faced back then, the new AD who was hired in the wake of that scandal confronted the program’s issues head on.

Yes, Josh Whitman immediately fired Bill Cubit and brought Lovie Smith to Champaign. Yes, Josh Whitman hit a home run in Brad Underwood to turn Illinois basketball into a perennial winner again. But he didn’t limit his attention only to the revenue sports, or even to on-field play in general. He also laid the foundation for a strong culture that fundamentally reshaped the Illinois Department of Intercollegiate Athletics (DIA).

One clear change is visible in the DIA’s 2016 mission statement, which Whitman helped to develop: “Unify. Develop. Inspire. Achieve.”

What it Means: Unify. Develop. Inspire. Achieve. (UDIA) are four encompassing words to both represent the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics mission and aspirations. For each of the many constituents – student-athletes, coaches and staff, alumni, donors and fans, the words can represent different meanings. The mission statement is designed to be self-interpretive and personal. In each of the words’ meanings, all audiences can find purpose.

Go click on that link above. It leads to an entire page on the Illinois athletics website that demonstrates how the mission statement guides the continual professional development of Illinois’ coaches and administrators. The skills that they’re constantly building will help them to better serve student-athletes and manage the work life balance in their own lives.

Did the DIA even have a mission statement under Mike Thomas or Ron Guenther? The only phrase we saw under Thomas’ leadership was “Our State. Our Team,” which was more of a marketing tagline than anything having to do with the school’s institutional culture.

In accordance with the new mission statement, Illinois athletics is also well ahead of the curve with regards to implementing a wide range of diversity and inclusion initiatives. One of Whitman’s first actions as AD was to create Illinois’ Diversity and Inclusion Committee, which, according to inaugural co-chairs Maria Woods and Keiko Price, was tasked by Whitman with “diversifying spectatorship, creating a safe space for athletes to discuss controversial issues that are going on in society right now, recruiting and retaining a diverse staff, and being more inclusive as a department.”

If you take some time to browse, you’ll realize that it’s built as much for the benefit of student-athletes as it is for fans, alumni, and donors. On the website, anyone can easily find the link to Doors Open, the DIA’s mental health program, which is available to all student-athletes. There’s also a page for coaches and staff to help them decide if and how to refer a student-athlete to mental health services. You can also find information about the I-MATTER Program, which aims to “target hate speech and humanize [emphasis in original] the Student-Athletes and Coaches behind the Block I.”

And on, and on, and on.

In case you can’t tell, the DIA under Josh Whitman places immense value on student-athlete safety and well-being. That message has visibly filtered down through the coaches and staff and on to the players, who in turn show support and respect for each other.

Again, no amount of culture building and training can fully prevent abuse or scandals from occurring. But the DIA under Whitman has taken basic steps (and gone well beyond in many areas) to ensure that (1) players know about the vast array of resources at their disposal, (2) coaches know how to best help and develop their players, and (3) administrators understand that student-athlete welfare is paramount over any other concerns.

Such an institutional culture is a strong bulwark against abuse, and it should make us confident in the future of Illinois athletics under Josh Whitman.